Although W. H. Davies (1871–1940) preferred to be known as a poet—a lifelong ambition achieved at huge sacrifice—it is for his prose memoirs of twelve years tramping in the Americas and Britain, and recorded in The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908), that he is best known. I must confess that I am not a great fan of Davies' poetry, weighed down as it is by metaphors of nature and rhyming couplets and quatrains; the most recognisable of which are probably the opening two lines of his poem 'Leisure': ‘What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare...’ And so for the purposes of this post, I rely on Davies' prose autobiographies for my research into his tramping exploits.
Davies was certainly a complex character, neither entirely at one with other tramps, being too bookish, nor comfortable in the literary world of London, having arrived in that company as something of a social oddity. But then neither did Davies enjoy the strained and mannered company of literary and high society London, rather being drawn, as he acknowledges in the opening line to his prose work, The True Traveller (1912), ‘to ill-dressed people and squalid places.’ In terms of his writing, although Davies describes himself as a 'natural genius', he was at the same time highly self-deprecating and insecure.
Then we have Davies seemingly contradictory attitudes to women and shocking remarks about African-Americans. But then transposing the political correctness of our present day on to those who lived in an altogether different world, leads nowhere. I quote again from former tramp and pulp Western novelist, Louis L'Amour, when he said that, ‘The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.’ Though Davies acknowledged preferring male company and frequently discusses women in derogatory terms, at the same time, he demonstrated a profound tenderness and care towards women, especially women on hard times; a fondness that was reciprocated by many of the women he encountered. For the most part, then, he was a gentle and vulnerable soul, but one whose passions could also be raised. He describes, for instance, in The True Traveller, how incensed he became with a man for refusing to pay a prostitute, that he involved himself in a fight with the man in order that she be paid.
Of Davies relationship with women, more later, but, in addition to all these paradoxes in Davies' character, it would appear that Davies' reputation was not helped by some of those who who offered him patronage, neither was it helped by contemporary and more recent commentators. He is described, for instance, as marrying a 23 year old prostitute at the age of 50, yet there is no evidence that Davies' wife Helen was ever a prostitute. In terms of his patrons, Davies does not name George Bernard Shaw in his autobiography as one of the writers to whom he sent out copies of his first volume of poetry (The Soul's Destroyer, 1905) but Shaw was one of the main reasons for Davies becoming a celebrity; adopting him as a project, a curiosity with which to entertain the literary world of his time. The title 'Super-tramp' was Shaw's own suggestion as a marketing gimmick for the book; a play on Shaw's own work Man and Superman, and a title that Davies came to resent. He was essentially a very modest man who, while enjoying his success, shunned and was embarrassed by the personal attention he received. My reader can judge for themselves if they wish to look at the Preface that Shaw wrote for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, but, in spite of its complements, I personally find the piece patronising, almost an apology for it being there in the first place and barely disguising that the novelty of the book's hero outweighed any literary merit of its author. As Shaw's comments, ‘It is a placid narrative, unexciting in matter and unvarnished in manner, of the commonplaces of a tramp's life.’ Again, it is for others to judge just how unexciting and commonplace was Davies' prose, or indeed his life.
Following the death of his father and remarriage of his mother at the age of three, Davies was raised by his paternal grandparents who ran the Church House Inn in Newport, South Wales. Davies was used to travel and adventure from an early age. He describes how his (frequently inebriated) grandfather, a Cornish ex-sea captain, made several trips with Davies and his brother between Newport and Bristol on a schooner named the Welsh Prince. A craft fondly recollected by Davies in human terms:
‘On one trip we had a very stormy passage, and on that occasion the winds and the waves made such a fool of the Welsh Prince that she—to use the feminine gender, as is the custom of every true mariner, of one of whom I am a proud descendant—often threatened to dive into the bowels of the deep for peace. It was on this occasion that my grandfather assisted the captain of the Welsh Prince to such purpose that people aboard acclaimed him as the saviour of their lives, and blessed him for the safety of the ship. [...] Alas! the Welsh Prince became childish in her old age. She would often loiter so long in the channel as to deceive the tide that expected her [...] What with her missing of tides, her wandering into strange courses, her sudden appearance in the river after rumours of loss, her name soon became the common talk of the town. Her erratic behaviour became at last so usual that people lost all interest as to her whereabouts [...] These things happened until she was condemned and sold, and her mooring place to this day is unoccupied by a successor’
His taste for alcohol, Davies credits with being raised in a pub and given porter to drink at bedtime, ‘in lieu of cocoa or tea, as is the custom in more domestic houses.’ Even after his grandparents left the pub and retired, Davies recalls these as happy times in a home consisting of: ‘grandfather, grand-mother, an imbecile brother, a sister, myself, a maid- servant, a dog, a cat, a parrot, a dove, and a canary bird.’
Although an able scholar, and, excelling in sport and the pugilistic arts, Davies was also a frequent truant and hell raiser. His schooling came to an abrupt end when a gang of petty thieves, of which he was the ringleader, was caught and jailed. They were returned to their homes after receiving their sentence of 12 strokes of the birch. It is interesting here to note, that a recurring theme of many of the tramp writers I have discussed so far, share a similar start in life to that of Davies: loss of a father at an early age, pugilistic prowess, truancy, alcohol (sometimes), and petty crime accompanied by punishment. Though I am not in anyway suggesting that these factors have a causative link to tramping. It is at this stage of my reading simply an observation that interests me.
Davies entered the world of employment, firstly in an iron foundry and then as an apprentice picture framer, by which time he had also started reading poetry after being introduced to Byron by a friend. Unlike the other tramp writers I have previously discussed, Davies was never a child tramp; travelling no further than Bristol before the death of both his grandparents. Had his grandmother agreed to his request for funds to travel to America earlier, he would have done so. In the event he had to wait until he was twenty one, and the death of his grandmother, before he was able to secure an advancement of £15 from the family's trustee and take to the road—well, initially the sea, on a steamer from Liverpool to New York in June 1893. It is significant to note also, that Davies arrival in America coincided with the financial 'Panic' of that same year, and the subsequent depression that followed.
Davies' records his first impression of America—at least Americans—as follows:
‘My impression of Americans from the beginning is of the best, and I have never since had cause to alter my mind. They are a kind, sympathetic race of people and naturally proud of their country. The Irish-American is inclined to be the most bitter, remembering from his youth the complaints of his parents, who were driven through unjust laws from their own beloved land; and such a man is not to be idly aggravated, for life is a serious subject to him.’
Davies did not remain long in New York. Anxious to visit Chicago, and, discovering that his remaining funds would not allow him to reach that destination, it was these circumstances, and meeting up with a seasoned tramp, that was to commence his six year period as a American hobo. His first tramp companion soon initiates Davies into the art of vagabondage:
‘I became, under Brum's tutorage, a lazy wretch with but little inclination for work. [...] Brum was a genuine beggar, who did not make flashes in the dark, having one day plenty and nothing on the next day. What he required he proceeded to beg, every morning making an inventory of his wants. Rather than wash a good handkerchief he would beg an old one that was clean, and he would without compunction discard a good shirt altogether rather than sew a button on—thus keeping up the dignity of his profession to the extreme. He scorned to carry soap, but went to a house like a Christian, and asked to be allowed to wash, with a request for warm water if the morning was cold. Begging was to him a fine art, indeed, and a delight of which he never seemed to tire. [...] Even in a new country like America, there are quite a number of hostile towns, owing to their lying on the main roads between large cities that are not far apart; but Brum never seemed to fail, and would certainly never lower his dignity by complaining of difficulty. In every street, he said, there lived a good Samaritan, and seeing that a good beggar knocks at every door, he must ultimately succeed.’
Davies was lucky to have fallen in with a 'professional' tramp and beggar to tutor him at the start of his adventures. The description of the many such individuals that I have already encountered in my readings of tramp literature, is distinguished, above anything, by the fact that they are all uniquely individual characters, with their own particular codes of ethics and idiosyncrasies. As Davies describes Brum: ‘[He was] a man of an original turn of mind and his ideas were often at variance with others.’ Davies' description of his initiation into riding the rails, and also the language of this vocation, will be familiar from the testimonies of my other tramp writers:
‘I was soon initiated into the mysteries of beating my way by train, which is so necessary in parts of that country, seeing the great distances between towns. Sometimes we were fortunate enough to get an empty car; sometimes we had to ride the bumpers; and often, when travelling through a hostile country, we rode on the roof of a car, so as not to give the brakesman an opportunity of striking us off the bumpers unawares. It is nothing unusual in some parts to find a man, always a stranger, lying dead on the track, often cut in many pieces. At the inquest they invariably bring in a verdict of accidental death, but we know different. Therefore we rode the car's top, so as to be at no disadvantage in a struggle. The brakesman, knowing well that our fall would be his own, would not be too eager to commence hostilities. Sometimes we were desperate enough to ride the narrow iron rods, which were under the car, and only a few feet from the track. This required some nerve, for it was not only uncomfortable, but the train, being so near the line, seemed to be running at a reckless and uncontrollable speed, whereas, when riding on the car's top, a much faster train seems to be running much slower and far more smooth and safe. Sometimes we were forced to jump off a moving train at the point of a revolver. At other times the brakesmen were friendly, and even offered assistance in the way of food, drink or tobacco. Again, when no firearm was in evidence, we had to threaten the brakesman with death if he interfered with us. In this way Brum and myself travelled the States of America, sleeping at night by camp fires, and taking temporary possession of empty houses.’
Encounters with American Justice
Davies stuck with Brum as his tramping companion for some time, descriptions of which make very entertaining and instructive reading, including an aborted summer vacation along the beaches of New Haven Sound, when the pair were arrested for vagrancy and Davies spent his first spell, a thirty day sentence, in an American jail. But eventually some frictions occurred between the pair as Davies was starting to feel starved of cultural distraction, the procurement of which would entail some paid employment in a city. Brum, being ideologically opposed to employment, found Davies' need of work a source of ridicule. The following (profoundly philosophical) observations, are interesting in the way they reveal that Davies, someone who has always admired nature, could also be overdosed on it:
‘I often reproached Brum for the aimlessness of this existence; telling him we must seek work and attend to other wants than those of the body. I would tell him of the arts, and how the cultivation of them was lost to us through a continual lack of funds. I told him of the pleasures of reading, visiting picture galleries, museums and theatres, and of the wonders of instrumental music, and of the human voice. [...] "What do you intend doing? Your, life is not mine. We often go for days without reading matter, and we know not what the world is saying; nor what the world is doing. The beauty of nature is for ever before my eyes, but I am certainly not enriching my mind, for who can contemplate Nature with any profit in the presence of others. I have no leisure to make notes in hopes of future use, and am so overpacking my memory with all these scenes, that when their time comes for use, they will not then take definite shape. I must go to work for some months, so that I may live sparingly on my savings in some large city, where I can cultivate my mind." ’
Davies wins the argument and Brum agrees to accompany him hop picking to raise the necessary funds to provide for Davies' cultural needs. On the train ride to the hop fields they are involved with a struggle with a brakesman on the roof of the car, which could have ended in certain death for all three of them, had the brakesman not seen sense and returned to the calaboose; too embarrassed to alert his workmates that two tramps had got the better of him. Having reached the hop-fields, in the company of a tramp named Australian Red, they completed a four week stint with only forty dollars between the three of them to show for their labours. Our companions then made for the nearest railway station with the intention of going to New York to paint that city ‘a forty dollar red.’ But having found a vacant box car and settling down for the journey, their over noisy chatter is heard by the local marshal, who puts them under arrest. What follows, is an entertaining story that introduces Davies to the vagaries of Western justice.
The trio are marched, not to jail, but to the local saloon were they order drinks, for the marshal too, while he summons the town judge. On the latter's arrival they occupy a room at the back of the saloon, an improvised courtroom, where the charges are read out and special mention made of the money they are carrying. The judge offers them the option of a five dollar fine each or thirty days in jail. So indignant is Davies at losing his money, in what is clearly legalised robbery (having been told that itinerant workers are encouraged to ride the rails free on the way into town, only to be relieved of half their wages on leaving), that he says he'll take the jail sentence. But this is a genial court, and the judge asks him what he would be happy to pay, whereupon Brum intervenes and agrees they'll pay three dollars each rather than face jail. On completion of the 'trial', the court adjourns to the bar where the judge buys them all a drink out of the fine money. They are then put back on the next train out by the marshal without any further inconvenience.
A similar story is told in my post about Jack Everson, and further anecdotes reported in Davies' book under the chapter 'Law in America', including stories of how tramps choose the hospitality of jails over winter, in preference to the harsh weather and lack of seasonal labour (see similar accounts also under Thomas Manning Page). Brum persuades Davies to this plan that they overwinter in a comfortable jail he knows of in Michigan and the trio head there instead of New York. There then follows a similar scam to the one reported in Everson's account which was rife in California. When Davies inquired how they could possibly be accommodated with food, tobacco and whiskey at the States expense, Brum informs him that the marshal gets a dollar each for every arrest he makes, the judge receives three or four dollars for every conviction, and the sheriff of the jail is paid a dollar a day for boarding each prisoner under his charge; all at the expense of the local citizenry from their taxes, fuelled by what had become America's 'tramp scare':
‘By this time the marshal stood before us. "Boys," he began, "cold weather for travelling, eh?" "We don't feel the cold," was Brum's reply. "You will though," said the marshal, "this is but the beginning, and there is a long and severe winter before you without a break. You would certainly be better off in jail. Sixty days in our jail, which is considered one of the best, if not the best, in Michigan, would do you no harm, I assure you." ... What about tobacco and a drink or two of whiskey?" "That'll be all right," said the marshal, "here's half a dollar for a drink, and the sheriff will supply your tobacco," ... The marshal produced the three cakes of tobacco, seeming to be well prepared for these demands, and giving us a paper dollar, requested us to go to Donovan's saloon, which we would find in the main street, where he would see us later in the day; "when of course," he added, winking, "you will be supposed to be just a bit merry." ... We were charged with being drunk and disorderly, and with disturbing the public peace. "He did not see," he said, "why peaceable citizens should be disturbed in this way by drunken strangers, and would fine us seven dollars and costs, in default of which we would be lodged in the county jail for thirty days." ’
A free download of Davies' book can be obtained for those who wish to learn more about how Davies and his companions spent their time at these various sojourns, or indeed read the whole book—as Davies own narration is far richer and more entertaining than my own. At any rate, following this overwintering experience they head for a fruit farm in Michigan where Davies intends to earn enough money to return to England. He arrives safely at their destination with Australian Red, but Brum did not manage to jump on board the moving train and Davies never saw him again. Being averse to working, Davies assumed Brum had decided on another spell in jail instead.
Davies the Cattleman
Davies finishes fruit picking with over one hundred dollars in his pocket and very useful advice from his friend on how he can work his passage back to Liverpool and earn some extra money into the bargain. But, as seems to be the pattern of even the most careful hobos, a week after arriving in Chicago the pair are penniless once more. Nonetheless, off they set for Baltimore with the intention of securing work on a ship transporting cattle to England:
‘We found the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad easy to beat, and were at the end of our journey in a very few days. When we entered the cattleman's office, from which place owners and foremen were supplied with men, it was evident to me that Red was well known in this place, hearing him make enquiries of Washington Shorty, New York Fatty, Philadelphia Slim, and others.’
Some of these tramp monikers do seem remarkably familiar and, allowing for the fact that there must have been many Shorties, Fatties and Slims on the road, it is tempting to cross-reference different tramp writers to see how many appear in more than one narrative. So far, at least, none of my tramp writers have come across each other in their wanderings. At any rate, while waiting to secure a passage, the two were fortunate enough to obtain work roping cattle in the transit yards. And so Davies now becomes a cowboy of sorts. A reluctant cattleman though, as Davies had a fondness for animals and did not like to see them mistreated. The following is just part of a longer description of his work loading the cattle aboard ship:
‘I shall never forget the first night's experience, when the cattle were brought to the ship in a train of cars. A large sloping gangway was erected to span the distance between ship and shore, and up this incline the poor beasts were unmercifully prodded with long poles, sharpened at the end, and used by the shore cattlemen. The terror-stricken animals were so new to the conditions, that they had no notion of what was expected of them, and almost overleaped one another in their anxiety to get away. What with the shout of savage triumph, the curse of disappointment, and the slipping and falling of the over-goaded steers, I was strongly tempted to escape the scene. As the cattle were being driven aboard, we cattlemen, who had signed for their future charge, caught their ropes, which we were required to fasten to a strong stanchion board. Sometimes one would run up behind, and prevent himself from turning. On one of these occasions, I crossed the backs of others, that had been firmly secured, so as to force this animal to a proper position. The animal, whose back I was using for this purpose, began to heave and toss, and at last succeeding in throwing me across the back of the other, this one tossing and rearing until I was in danger of my life, only the pressure of the other beasts preventing him from crushing my limbs. Taking possession of his rope, I held it to a cattleman, who was standing waiting and ready in the alley, and he quickly fastened this refractory animal to the crossboards.'
In addition to the cattle, there were also two thousand sheep quartered on what was known as the hurricane deck; aptly named, as during the trip, half of them were washed into the sea during a storm. Arriving in Liverpool, Davies recounts a strange story concerning these wild and lawless vagabond cattlemen, for poor as they may have been, they were also the target of every beggar in Liverpool and other port cities. Easily marked out in bars by their accents, and tough as they were, they were yet easily parted with their money; touched by the significantly worse poverty of the British vagrant, coupled with their pride of being relatively comfortably off Americans. In a penniless state—Davies included—they boarded the same ship back to Baltimore were they were at least fed and sheltered. Davies resolving that on the very next trip out he would keep his money and return home to Newport. A plan he failed to execute, for on his next cattle trip, this time to London, he returned once more to Baltimore, and made other trips too, and not simply for want of money.
The characters and stories Davies tells of these adventures are rich and entertaining, alternating between paid work and begging, but also frequently having to avoid being robbed. For as well as hoboes and beggars, Davies describes gangs who neither begged nor worked, but lived entirely on thieving from hoboes and beggars. The worst of which where the gangs he encountered after quitting as a cattleman and heading out alone to Chicago to earn money working on a new canal that was then being built some distance from that city. Davies describes how men who, having been paid off and heading to Chicago to spend their earnings, were later found murdered and floating in the canal, having been relieved of their wages. It then became necessary for those who had been paid off, to wait for others and head for Chicago in groups, the better to avoid being attacked. Davies describes how, travelling in just such a manner with two friends, they were likewise accosted but succeeded in chasing their assailants away. A short time later when back again at work on the canal, a friend of Davies, Cockney Tom, recognised the man who tried to rob him and the two engage in a fist fight in which Cockney is the victor. A seemingly modest outcome for someone who had likely, as Davies put it, ‘taken an active part in perhaps fifty or sixty murders’.
At this point of Davies autobiography, it is worth noting that, unlike the American tramp writers in this work in progress, Davies does not attempt to use the terms tramp, hobo, beggar, thief, etc., as classifications of different types. The characters in Davies' autobiography may adopt any one or more of these roles at different times.
His wanderlust having returned, and fifty dollars to the better, Davies now tramps to St. Louis, the city which, coincidently, and according to my calculations, was, at the time of Davies arrival there, home of Thomas Manning Page, the subject of my last post. And here Davies gives one of his few reflections on tramping, being for the most part caught up in the storytelling:
‘This kind of life was often irksome to me, when I have camped all night alone in the woods, beside a fire, when one good sociable companion might have turned the life into an ideal one. Often have I waked in the night, or early morning, to find spaces opposite occupied by one or two strangers, who had seen the fire in the distance, and had been guided to me by its light.’
But Davies was not destined to stay long in St. Louis, as the following passage, testimony to Davies affability and love of the companionship of other vagabonds, describes:
‘On reaching St. Louis I still had something like forty dollars, and being tired of my own thoughts, which continually upbraided me for wasted time, resolved to seek some congenial fellowship, so that in listening to other men's thoughts I might be rendered deaf to my own. I had bought a daily paper, and had gone to the levee, so that I might spend a few hours out of the sun, reading, and watching the traffic on the river. Seeing before me a large pile of lumber, I hastened towards it, that I might enjoy its shady side. When I arrived I saw that the place was already occupied by two strangers, one being a man of middle age, and the other a youth of gentlemanly appearance. Seating myself, I began to read, but soon had my attention drawn to their conversation. The young fellow, wanting to go home, and being in no great hurry, proposed buying a house-boat and floating leisurely down the Mississippi to New Orleans, from which place he would then take train to Southern Texas, where his home was. "We will go ashore," he said, "and see the different towns, and take in fresh provisions as they are needed." The elder of the two, who had a strong Scotch accent, allowed a little enthusiasm to ooze out of his dry temperament, and agreed without much comment. "Excuse me,gentlemen," I said, "I could not help but hear your conversation and, if you have no objection, would like to share expenses and enjoy your company on such a trip." ’
Escapades in the Deep South
What started out as a promising adventure—and indeed was not short of such for some time—was curtailed when first the young Texan, and then Davies himself, contracted malaria. Having split up out of necessity, Davies has a near death experience lying feverish in a swamp:
‘I don't know what possessed me to walk out of this town, instead of taking a train, but this I did, to my regret. For I became too weak to move, and, coming to a large swamp, I left the railroad and crawled into it, and for three days and the same number of nights, lay there without energy to continue my journey. Wild hungry hogs were there, who approached dangerously near, but ran snorting away when my body moved. A score or more of buzzards had perched waiting on the branches above me, and I knew that the place was teeming with snakes. I suffered from a terrible thirst, and drank of the swamp-pools, stagnant water that was full of germs, and had the colours of the rainbow, one dose of which would have poisoned some men to death. When the chill was upon me, I crawled into the hot sun, and lay there shivering with the cold; and when the hot fever possessed me, I crawled back into the shade. Not a morsel to eat for four days, and very little for several days previous. I could see the trains pass this way and that, but had not the strength to call. Most of the trains whistled,and I knew that they stopped either for water or coal within a mile of where I lay. Knowing this to be the case, and certain that it would be death to remain longer in this deadly swamp, I managed to reach the railroad track, and succeeded in reaching the next station, where most of these trains stopped. The distance had been less than a mile, but it had taken me two hours to accomplish. I then paid my way from this station, being in a hurry to reach Memphis, thinking my life was at its close. When I reached that town, I took a conveyance from the station to the hospital. At that place my condition was considered to be very serious, but the doctor always bore me in mind, for we were both of the same nationality, and to that, I believe, I owe my speedy recovery.’
Davies now describes, what are for him, the peculiarities of the Southern States. Having previously given away their houseboat to a fisherman because he had no money to buy it, neither any use for it, Davies later got work in a factory producing staves, but was shocked at being paid only in kind (food, clothes and other provisions). At this point of the book, he also describes the character and lives of former slaves who he encounters on his travels, noting that there was little difference in their life before and after the abolition of slavery. They lived in the same shacks, he says, and were paid in kind only, not money, for their labours. Davies also here notes the cruelty and impoverishment of Southern prisons compared to the prisons of the North, that he likens to hotels.
‘In some places a man would be tried and perhaps fined ten dollars and costs. A citizen, having need of a cheap labourer, would pay this fine, take possession of the prisoner, and make him work out his fine on the farm. This citizen would buy the prisoner cheap overalls, dungarees, shirts, shoes, etc., for a few dollars, and charge the prisoner four times their amount. The prisoner was not free to refuse these, and being forced to work out their price, was kept in this way twice the number of his days. I was very much afraid of all this, although a wandering white man was not in nearly so much danger as a negro.’
Entering a small town and seeing congregating groups of whites, all armed with guns, Davies describes his disgust at witnessing a lynching. Like a scene from a Western movie, the men head for the jail where they demand from the sheriff the keys, drag out their black victim, and summarily hang him from a tree. On arrival in New Orleans, Davies is mugged and badly beaten, so heads straight for Texas, visiting many towns along the way. In Paris, Texas, he describes in the town saloon, the mummified heart of another lynching victim, tied in a piece of cord and displayed in a glass case. Given Davies description, this must have been the remains of Henry Smith, who was reportedly tortured with red hot irons for fifty minutes before being burned alive. Smith was accused of murdering the three year old daughter of the town marshal as a result of himself being bullied and beaten by that officer. Davies final anecdote of the Southern states was, that on his arrival in Fort Smith, Arkansas, he witnessed the departure of a specially commissioned and heavily guarded train, transporting a gang of train and bank robbers, including Bill Cook and Cherokee Bill, on their way out of that town.
Now how much of Davies' narrative has been augmented with local folklore for literary effect, and how much is the author's direct experience (Davies certainly underplays his own role in his adventures), cannot be established. But, as I have previously stated, I am less concerned with historical accuracy than with the knowledge and pleasure I get from reading these tramp narratives. In this respect Davies has not disappointed me. There now follows, in a chapter titled 'The Camp', a description of a tramp 'convention' in a jungle outside Pittsburg, that has some parallels with the similar gathering of tramps described by Thomas Manning Page in my last post. It is following this camp, and on using up the earnings from a spell at fruit picking in Chicago, that Davies, reflecting on lost opportunities, resolves once more to return to England (he does not say Wales). We also learn how Davies recognises the advantages he has over other tramps, and paradoxically (which is a feature of the man), how this advantage has also cursed him:
‘I had now been in the United States of America something like five years, working here and there as the inclination seized me, which, I must confess was not often. I was certainly getting some enjoyment out of life, but now and then the waste of time appalled me, for I still had a conviction that I was born to a different life. The knowledge that I had the advantage over the majority of strangers in that country, often consoled me when feeling depressed. For my old grandmother had left me one-third profit of a small estate, my share at that time amounting to ten shillings per week, and during these five years I had not drawn one penny, therefore having over a hundred pounds entered to my account. So, when one would say how much he desired to return to his native land, but had no means of doing so, I would then explain how it could easily be done on the cattle boats. And if he protested, saying that he had not the courage to return penniless after so many years abroad, although I had no answer to console him, his objection was a pleasant reminder of my own expectations. It was this knowledge that made me so idle and so indifferent to saving; and it was this small income that has been, and is in a commercial sense, the ruin of my life.
"Ah I" I said, with a sigh, "if during these five years I had had the daily companionship of good books, instead of all this restless wandering to and fro in a strange land, my mind, at the present hour, might be capable of some little achievement of its own."’
After a successful crossing, but not without first going on a week long spree in Baltimore with Australian Red and diminishing his funds, Davies eventually arrives home in Newport. Somewhat lost, he is directed to his mother's new home by someone who recognises him. He describes his final homecoming as follows:
‘I knocked on the door and mother, who always was and is full of premonitions, and is very superstitious in the way of signs and dreams, opened the door at once, knew who I was in the dark, though we could not see much of each other's form or face, and, to my surprise, called me by name. "That's me, mother," I said. "Yes," she answered, "I thought it was your knock," just as though I had only been out for an evening's stroll. She said in the course of the evening, that they had all given me up for dead, except herself, and that she had also, three years before, given up all hopes of seeing me again, having had a dream wherein she saw me beat about the head and lying bloody at the feet of strangers. She mentioned the year, and even the month of this year, and a little consideration on my part placed its date with that of the outrage at New Orleans, but I did not then trouble her with an account of this.
Of course at this homecoming I vowed that I would never again leave my native town. True, I found great difficulty in sleeping on a soft bed, and lay awake several hours through the night, tossing and turning from one side to another. The food itself did not seem so palatable coming out of clean pots and shining ovens, as that which was cooked in close contact with the embers, and in the smoke and blaze of a camp fire.’
After two months of wandering aimlessly around his home town and drinking, as he says, ‘immoderately’, Davies decided to realise an ambition of his to open a bookstore in London. But with half of his stipend already spent, and little knowledge of the book trade, the project did not materialise. In any case, wanderlust having returned and, reading a newspaper report of the Klondike gold rush, Davies sets off once more for the New World.
‘My conception of that wonderful land, for all my travels, was childish in the extreme. I thought the rocks were of solid gold, which so dazzled the sun that he could not concentrate his glance on any particular part, and that his eye went swimming all day in a haze. I pictured men in possession of caves sitting helpless in the midst of accumulated nuggets, puzzled as to how to convey all this wealth to the marts of civilisation. What I wanted with all these riches I cannot say, for it was never a desire of mine to possess jewellery, fine raiment, yachts, castles or horses: all I desired was a small house of my own, and leisure for study.’
And so once again Davies crossed the Atlantic from Liverpool (Davies claims to have crossed the Atlantic eighteen times in total), on this occasion bound for St John's in Newfoundland. From here he beat it in tramp style to Montreal, determined to visit two famous tramp haunts, Joe Beef's and French Marie's, that had been much talked about during his previous tramping in America. Davies spent several weeks in Montreal awaiting the arrival of Spring and much enjoying his stay there with new found companions—as his lapse here into a more poetic prose style seems to testify:
‘What a glorious time of the year is this! With the warm sun travelling through serene skies, the air clear and fresh above you, which instils new blood in the body, making one defiantly tramp the earth, kicking the snows aside in the scorn of action. The cheeks glow with health, the lips smile, and there is no careworn face seen, save they come out of the house of sickness of death. And that lean spectre, called Hunger, has never been known to appear in these parts.’
But shortly after this idyllic sojourn, Davies career as an American hobo was to come to an abrupt end. Jumping a train from Renfrew in the direction of Winnipeg, Davies was to join the statistics of other casualties of free rail travel:
‘The train whistled almost before we were ready, and pulled slowly out of the station. I allowed my companion the advantage of being the first to jump, owing to his maimed hand. The train was now going faster and faster, and we were forced to keep pace with it. Making a leap he caught the handle bar and sprang lightly on the step, after which my hand quickly took possession of this bar, and I ran with the train, prepared to follow his ex- ample. To my surprise, instead of at once taking his place on the platform, my companion stood thoughtlessly irresolute on the step, leaving me no room to make the attempt. But I still held to the bar, though the train was now going so fast that I found great difficulty in keeping step with it. I shouted to him to clear the step. This he proceeded to do, very deliberately, I thought. Taking a firmer grip on the bar, I jumped, but it was too late, for the train was now going at a rapid rate. My foot came short of the step, and I fell, and, still clinging to the handle bar, was dragged several yards before I relinquished my hold. And there I lay for several minutes, feeling a little shaken, whilst the train passed swiftly on into the darkness.
Even then I did not know what had happened, for I attempted to stand, but found that something had happened to prevent me from doing this. Sitting down in an upright position, I then began to examine myself, and now found that the right foot was severed from the ankle.’
This was not the first time that Davies consideration and kindness towards others had been his undoing, but it was certainly the most catastrophic. It required two operations to save part of Davies' leg, now amputated at the knee. He became something of a minor celebrity during his stay in Renfrew, and could no doubt have led a comfortable life in that town with the amount of charity and offers of jobs bestowed on him by the kind-hearted citizens. But Davies was determined to return to 'England'; as he frequently chooses to describe his home. He describes how his despondency at losing his leg was lifted on the return sea crossing by the agility and exuberance of a fellow one-legged passenger. On his return home, Davies made the following evaluation of his new situation:
‘I was now more content with my lot, determined that as my body had failed, my brains should now have the chance they had longed for, when the spirit had been bullied into submission by the body's activity. ... A far different Klondyke had opened up before my eyes, which corresponded with the dreams of my youth.’
And so, at the age of 29, with a fine new artificial leg, Davies attempted to make the transition from tramp to professional poet; though he was not to find it easy. Undoubtably, Davies did write hundreds of poems during his first few years in London, but in order to live within his budget, which had now been reduced to eight shillings a week, he had to live in boarding houses and on meals that were often decidedly more miserable than those he had enjoyed as a tramp in America. Davies description of a Salvation Army hostel confirms this:
‘Speaking after six months' experience at the Salvation Army Lodging House, I am very sorry that I have nothing at all to say in its favour. Of course, it was well understood by the lodgers, whatever people on the outside thought, that no charity was dispensed on the premises. Certainly the food was cheap, but such food as was not fit for a human being ... it was with difficulty that a man could find room between the beds to undress. A row of fifteen or twenty beds would be so close together that they might as well be called one bed. Men were breathing and coughing in each other's faces and the stench of such a number of men in one room was abominable.’
Davies' description of those uncharitable Christian soldiers has a resonance with Thomas Manning Page's diatribe on the sanctimonious converts of the YMCA in my last post. Although sadly, Davies was no satirist; only acknowledging that, ‘The officers in charge were, according to my first opinion, hypocrites’.
Davies' determination to succeed as a writer was tenacious in the extreme. He wrote to dozens of publishers without success, and when he did get the offer to publish a collection of his poetry, it was on the condition that he fund the project himself. Davies also sent out many (unsuccessful) begging letters to charitable donors, in the hope that he would find a sponsor for his publishing enterprise. So determined was he to see his work in print that he took once more to the road in order to save up the necessary amount required. He had also been advised by a fellow lodger, that he should get a traditional peg leg replacement for his existing artificial leg, which was by now showing signs of wear; a wooden leg being a more suitable prosthesis for tramping and also a more obvious demonstration of his disability, one which may aid him in his new career as a licensed pedlar. After tramping half way across England, and his pedlar's wares having been ruined by rain, Davies once more finds himself destitute and looks again to his former tramping skills.
There then follows a description of various characters and the different types of beggars and hawkers that Davies meets in the Midland towns and cities he passes through on his trampings (including the 'gridler' who sings for money, and the 'downrighter' who provides no service at all, preferring honest begging) before eventually returning on foot to London, still penniless apart from his Grandmother's annuity. In December of that year, Davies decides to tramp to his home town in South Wales for Christmas. Reaching the Welsh border in less than a week, he decides to continue on to Swansea before returning back to Newport in time for Christmas Eve—an additional tramp of some 110 miles. Davies had now been tramping continuously for three months on one leg, before resting up for three weeks in Newport, and then again returning again to London refreshed and in new spirits. But Davies luck at getting his poetry published was as elusive as ever. After several more unproductive months in another hostel, he hit on the idea of getting an advance from his grandmother's trustee to pay for their publication. Strings attached to the transaction meant that Davies would have to wait six months to receive the advance and also forgo his eight shillings a week allowance. And so once more, Davies was forced on to the road to survive—the necessary sacrifice for becoming a published writer.
‘I travelled alone, in spite of the civilities of other tramps who desired company, so as to allow no strange voice to disturb my dreams. Some of these men had an idea that I was mad, because I could give them little information as to the towns and villages through which I had that very day passed. They enquired as to the comforts and conditions of a town's workhouse, of which I knew nothing, for I had not entered it. They enquired as to its best lodging house, of which I was again ignorant, having slept in the open air. [...] After tramping from town to town, from shire to shire, in two months I was in Devonshire, on my way to Plymouth. I felt continually attracted to these large centres of commerce, owing, I suppose, to feeling the necessity of having an object in view; but was generally starved out of them in a very short time.’
After three months of tramping, the best of the autumn weather was over and Davies was forced once more to secure shelter for the winter. He used his last pennies to purchase some shoe laces and peddle his way through the towns around London without entering that city. After five full months on the road and being exhausted, he returned to his former lodgings in London to spend the final month, before he could receive the advance due to him at the turn of the New Year, preparing his manuscript. Davies received 250 copies his volume of forty poems (The Soul's Destroyer and other Poems, 1905) directly from the printer, which he himself would have to try and sell less 30 copies sent out for review. The review copies produced only two negative results, leaving Davies in despair and resolved to burn all remaining copies and return to tramping.
‘I was now waiting the result, which at last came in the shape of two very slim reviews from the North; a Yorkshire paper saying that the work had rhymes that were neither intricate nor original, and a Scotch paper saying that the work was perfect in craftsmanship rather than inspired. [...] Weeks and weeks went by and, having now started to drink, and losing control of my will in this disappointment, I had come down to my last ten shillings, and had a good seven months to go before my money was again due. First of all I had serious thoughts of destroying this work...’
But Davies did not burn his books. He persevered, sending further copies out to people he thought might be interested. Some were just accepted as gifts, while others had the decency to at least send him the 'half a crown' (two shillings and sixpence) cost of the book, allowing him the price of postage to send out further copies. One of those who did buy the book, indeed purchased several copies, was George Bernard Shaw, who describes receiving The Soul's Destroyer in the Preface to The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp:
‘In the year 1905 I received by post a volume of poems by one William H. Davies, whose address was the The Farm House, Kennington, S.E. I was surprised to learn that there was still a farmhouse left in Kennington; for I did not then suspect that the Farmhouse ... is, in fact, a doss-house, or hostelry where single men can have a night's lodging for, at most, a sixpence. [...] The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer's or stationer's shop; handed in his manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots. It was marked "price half a crown." An accompanying letter asked me very civilly if I required a half-crown book of verses; and if so, would I please send the author the half-crown: if not, would I return the book. This was attractively simple and sensible.’
In his reply to Davies, Shaw gave him the names of some poetry critics he felt may be interested, urging him to use the money he had sent for his copies of the book, to forward further copies to these same critics. It is not clear from Davies account if it was Shaw's lead that produced the result (Shaw is not mentioned by name in Super-Tramp) or a Daily Mail journalist, A. St John Adcock, who recognised a story in Davies. Nevertheless, Davies writes that, down to his last three shillings, and about to give up altogether, he was to receive correspondence from two ‘well known writers ... who promised to do something through the press.’ Following which intervention things at last started to go the would-be-poet's way:
‘Private recognition was certainly not long forthcoming, which was soon followed by a notice in a leading daily paper, and in a literary paper of the same week. These led to others, to interviews and a kindness that more than made amends for past indifference. It was all like a dream. In my most conceited moments I had not expected such an amount of praise, and they gathered in favour as they came, until one wave came stronger than the others and threw me breathless of all conceit, for I felt myself unworthy of it, and of the wonderful sea on which I had embarked. Sleep was out of the question, and new work was impossible.
As I have said, the first notice appeared in a leading daily paper, a full column, in which I saw myself described, a rough sketch of the ups and downs of my life, in short telling sentences, with quotations from my work. The effect of this was almost instantaneous, for correspondence immediately followed. Letters came by every post.’
Davies was now writing his second book of verse, but still from the managers office at the Farmhouse; and so had not escaped vagabondage entirely to realise his dream of living out his life in ‘a small comfortable room with a cosy fire’. But a journalist and writer from the Daily Chronicle, Edward Thomas, was to befriend Davies and invite him to live in a place where Thomas would also write, later moving Davies to a place called Stidulph's Cottage, in Egg Pie Lane, Sevenoaks, Kent. Thomas paid the rent and other friends pitched in with money for heating, etc. Davies was to become close friends with Thomas, his wife and their children, and his second book, New Poems, published in 1907, would be dedicated to Helen and Edward Thomas. By now Davies was working on The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp which would be published the following year.
In spite of the help he was getting from his friends, Davies was still vulnerable and living in near poverty. Thomas, by now also Davies' unofficial agent, along with others, were to make major editing suggestions to Davies' autobiography. The most significant of which was to persuade Davies to remove all memoirs and anecdotes of a sexual nature, for fear of offending his reading public and new literary friends. This is a great shame, as it removes from Davies' autobiography, not only important sociological references to a vagabond's (Davies) relationships with women, and descriptions of the various brothels that Davies clearly frequented, but also to the characterisation of Davies as a Beckettian, self-imposed exile (see post, Beckett's Tramps), seeking companionship and the intimacy of other exiles. This kind of abject relationship is especially touching when such intimacy involves nothing more than the kind mutual aid and comfort animals share with one another. Choosing to live on the margins of society, and being empathetic with other outsiders, including prostitutes and beggars, has clear parallels with other aesthetics I have written about elsewhere on this blog, including the ancient Cynics and Jesus of Nazareth. It is a loss that The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp only records Davies intimacy with men and not also women. Fortunately, however, such accounts were recorded by Davies in a later work, The True Traveller (1912), and also the autobiography of his courtship and marriage to his wife Helen, in Young Emma, not published until after her death in 1980; a discussion of which I include below.
|Augustus John's portrait of Davies|
Even now fully engaged as a writer, Davies still made time for tramping expeditions, both to clear his head and provide himself with inspiration for more writing. But I will now jump the rest of the seven years that Davies wrote and published eleven works in Stidulph's Cottage in Kent (he would publish 25 volumes of poetry and prose in his lifetime). I will also miss out his return to London, now aged 43, and his entry into high society; which he embraced and shunned in equal measure. Davies eventual residence in London was a room in Charles Dickens' former house in Bloomsbury, and those who Davies became close to, aside from his first meeting with Bernard Shaw, included: Hilaire Belloc, Walter de la Mare, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Jacob Epstein, Augustus John, and Edith Sitwell. Davies was to turn his back on all of them in search of a simpler and, for him, more meaningful life.
I pick up Davies story again when, at the age of fifty, and after a series of live-in housekeepers come mistresses, he decides it is time to find a wife and settle down to a more conventional, but also more private, life.
The circumstances surrounding the publication of Young Emma are as strange as the story itself. In August 1924, eighteen months after Davies had married Helen Payne at East Grinstead Register Office, Davies wrote to the publisher Jonathan Cape to discuss a novel he had just finished. Six weeks later he sent the manuscript with a note that read, ‘I am sending Young Emma. It frightens me now it's done.’ Davies had insisted that the book be published anonymously to protect his wife and himself; avoiding any direct references that might identify them. Fearing that an autobiography of Davies romance and marriage to a woman twenty seven years his junior, only thinly disguised as a fiction, might damage Davies reputation, Cape consulted Davies' former patron George Bernard Shaw. Shaw's reply is included as an appendix in the book, but while Shaw describes the book as ‘an amazing document’, he agrees that it would do its author harm (no concern is expressed for the authors wife) if published in his lifetime, and suggests Cape leave the final decision to Davies himself. Naively, Davies only told his wife about the book after he had already sent it to Cape, which occasioned him to write a further letter to Cape to the effect that:
‘She is very much alarmed at it ... As she is only 24 years of age and has every prospect of outliving us all I have come to the conclusion that the MS must be destroyed ... So will you please return the MS and let me have a note to say you have destroyed the two type-written copies ... Please don't try to persuade me to do anything different, as a book that is not fit to be published now can never be fit.’
The copies were not destroyed but carefully put away in a safe. They surfaced several times, but were not eventually published until the year after Helen Davies died in 1979—fifty six years after the book was written. Here, then, is that part of Davies autobiography relating to his courtship and marriage. Again there is much evidence of Davies' insecurities, vulnerabilities, and paradoxical self-characterisation. From the beginning of the book's Introduction, Davies is on the defensive; starting with an apology to the reader that credits the abject side of his story as being redeemed by 'the force of a natural genius':
‘Although the book may be praised for its style and language, I would not like anyone to think or say that the matter itself is foul; and that the force of a natural genius has made common ditchwater sing like a pure spring. For had I not been convinced that the book was pure, in spite of the matter it deals with, it would never have been written or published.’
I will now provide an overview of the book itself, starting with Davies impression that he is only tolerated by London society because of his reputation as a writer, at the same time admitting that he has tired with these acquaintances anyway, and wishes to move once more to the relative anonymity and solitude of the countryside. But if there is a pattern here to Davies' attitude to high society circles, what is it? A basic insecurity: reject them before they reject you, or a genuine repudiation of a way of life that, while he craves its acceptance of his literary accomplishments, also repulses him. For he is a man modest in his tastes and needs—a tramp by nature who yearns for the freedom to indulge his natural desires without attracting attention.
‘I was beginning to find society a pest, and common friendship unsatisfactory. I began to see that, although people liked me personally, their interest in me would only last as long as my power to keep my name before the public. ... I decided to give them up, before their time came to sacrifice me.’
Davies' sense of survival is powerful. Quite determined to change his single status to that of a married man, he mentions two women from the aforementioned London society, whom he claims would have been happy to marry him. His reasons for rejecting both, on the surface appear selfish, but again, might point to an innate insecurity:
‘One of these two women was an actress, but I knew that there could be no union between the footlights and a quiet study. The other was rich, and that would not do either; for I wanted a woman who was worth working for, and would be dependent on my own loving kindness.’
This last admission is telling. But there is no doubt that, although Davies' approach to securing a wife is more akin to choosing furniture, again, the motivation is not entirely clear. Insecurity and fear of rejection, or some deep-seated working-class, conservative ethic? Then there is also Davies' own admission that he was drawn to the marginal and the dispossessed. But the values and ethos of tramping are about either mutual independence or mutual dependence, not the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress—so possibly an incurable romantic also?
In any event, it was with such considerations in mind that Davies embarked on his new quest, but not before he describes the last of a series of live in lovers-come-housekeepers—with the latter it seems being the primary need. When the need took him, he would wander the streets day or night watching, and sometimes picking up, women. Yet his self confessed shyness, or, paradoxically (considering his pastime), good manners, meant he would only approach a woman who first approached him. It is not difficult to see how Davies tired of mistresses. In spite of his predatory behaviour, he was both naive and vulnerable. One of his 'housekeepers' stole from him mercilessly, even scolding him when he accused her of buying inferior soap when he had clearly given her sufficient money for a superior product. Another was unfaithful to him, and yet a third was a drunkard. Davies had calculated that his wife should be honest, abstinent, not object to him smoking or spending time in the company of men, and, as already noted, dependent on him in every way. Quite a tall order, particularly as Davies also described himself as, ‘lacking the charms that please a woman ... I don't think it possible that any woman could fall in love with me at first sight.’
But perhaps Davies was just too hard on himself. Because in spite of his odd behaviour, including his feigned selfishness, boorishness and misogyny, he was by all accounts a compassionate and kind-hearted man—even if he did not always express it outwardly. Socially awkward, certainly, but more vulnerable than abusive: All this is borne out in Young Emma, which due to Davies extreme candidness (there is nothing to suggest that this is merely a literary ploy—and remember that Davies believed the book would be published anonymously) leaves little doubt as to the true nature of the man, as the following lines suggest: ‘what am I to do with this foolish face of mine: why does it look so kind and honest that everyone takes advantage of it’
Remarkable then, if not also aberrant, that at the age of fifty, strolling at night along the Edgware Road, Davies sees a young woman (she is twenty three but, as Davies admits, looks more like fifteen) who smiles at him, and within minutes is walking arm in arm with him back to his flat in Holborn. Davies admits to taking back streets to his flat for fear of being accosted by the police who, he says, would ask what a poorly dressed young woman was doing with a smartly dressed gentleman old enough to be her father. Helen (Emma) spends the night with Davies and tells him that she is up from the country and about to give notice to her employer who is treating her badly. Davies offers her work as his companion and housekeeper and she accepts, telling him that she will return to take up her post the following Saturday after working out her week's notice.
There then follows a pitiable scenario where Davies, realising he has not asked for the woman's address, and also his stupidity for not suggesting she walk out of the job immediately, goes through all kinds of mental torment that he will never see her again. He can't sleep, and walks the streets and park around Marble Arch for a week hoping to catch site of her. Hopelessly besotted, and convincing himself he has lost her forever, he is astounded when Saturday arrives and she knocks and walks into his apartment. The more so when she admits to having walked several times past his house hoping to catch site of him. But there is also a disagreeable side to this love story, for Davies notes he has been infected with the early symptoms of syphilis and, convinced that Helen was the source of the infection, confronts her and persuades her to take a letter (that he writes) to his doctor. Not fully understanding the significance of what Davies is implying, Helen complies but with inconclusive results. Davies' obsession with the disease, and his harsh treatment of Helen as a result, forms a significant portion of the book. It is many months later, after their marriage, that Davies discovers from his doctor that, on examination, Helen showed no signs of ever having had the disease. Realising that he had acquired his disease from a previous lover, Davies was not only mortified at having wronged Helen, but, given such highly personal and candid accounts of his wife's medical examinations, and his own callous stupidity, little wonder that he had reservations about the book being published.
Furthermore, Davies was unaware at the time of meeting Helen that she was pregnant as the result of a rape by a friend's brother. And, as I have already noted, suggestions that Helen was a prostitute are completely unfounded, based only on comments that she might have become a prostitute if Davies had not married her. The story of how Helen nearly died in childbirth (the baby did not survive) and how Davies, himself nearly dying from an infected foot (there is no mention in the book that he has only one), drags himself to the hospital to visit her, is extremely moving and tender. As fanciful as the story is, this is the manner in which Davies met his future wife. An odd couple they certainly were, but clearly in love with one another other, and in spite of the usual domestic disagreements, lived happily together in various country residences until Davies death in 1940, some eighteen years later.
I leave the final words of this saga to Davies, a summing up of (his) tramp life from the end of the penultimate chapter of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp:
‘Certainly I have led a worthless, wandering and lazy life, with, in my early days, a strong dislike to continued labour, and incapacitated from the same in later years. No person seemed inclined to start me on the road to fame, but, as soon as I had made an audacious step or two, I was taken up, passed quickly on from stage to stage, and given free rides farther than I expected.’
DAVIES TRIVIA: Davies was a distant cousin of the actor Sir Henry Irving. He was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Wales in 1926. As well as Augustus John's painting copied above, there were many other portraits made of Davies in his lifetime. There are to date at least five biographies of Davies, as well as references to him in countless other volumes. Davies can also take credit for the names of the rock band Supertramp and Bristol based soul combo, The Soul Destroyers.